LEXINGTON, Ky. — The taxi route for commercial jets using Blue Grass Airport’s main runway was altered a week before Comair Flight 5191 took the wrong runway and crashed, killing all but one of the 50 people aboard, the airport’s director said Monday.
Both the old and new taxiways cross over the shorter general aviation runway where the commuter jet tried to take off early Sunday, Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb told The Associated Press.
The runway repaving was completed late on the previous Sunday, Gobb said. It wasn’t clear if the Comair pilots aboard Flight 5191 had been there since the change. Comair operates that regular 6 a.m. weekend flight to Atlanta from Lexington, but another commuter airline takes over that commute during the week.
“It’s slightly different than it used to be,” said Charlie Monette, president of Aero-Tech flight school, which is based at the airport. “Could there have been some confusion associated with that? That’s certainly a possibility.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and could not immediately be reached for comment.
Conversations between the plane’s cockpit and the person staffing the control tower before dawn Sunday morning mentioned only the airport’s main commercial strip, Runway 22, NTSB member Debbie Hersman said earlier Monday.
Somehow, the commuter jet ended up on the airport’s other runway instead, Runway 26 — a cracked surface meant for small planes that was much too short for Comair’s twin-engine jet.
What followed was the worst U.S. plane disaster since 2001.
The pilots tried to lift off, but the plane clipped trees, then quickly crashed in a field and burst into flames, killing everyone aboard but a critically injured co-pilot who was pulled from the cracked cockpit.
Although Blue Grass Airport’s Runway 22 is 7,000 feet, the plane departed from the 3,500-foot general aviation Runway 26. The twin-engine CRJ-100 would have needed 5,000 feet to fully get off the ground, aviation experts said.
There also were clues for the pilot: Signs marking the right way. Less lighting. And severely cracked concrete — not the type of surface typically found on runways for commercial routes.
Left now are only scuff marks on the wrong runway and the wreckage of a plane scattered into pieces across a field about a mile away from the airport.
The plane’s two pilots were familiar with the twin-engine CRJ-100, and that plane in particular, the plane’s maintenance was up to date, and it wasn’t an old aircraft, Comair President Don Bornhorst said. Comair, based in Erlanger, Ky., is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc.
“We are absolutely, totally committed to doing everything humanly possible to determine the cause of this accident,” Bornhorst said Sunday, following the worst American plane disaster in nearly five years.
Both of the plane’s flight recorders were being reviewed.
Officer pulls out survivor
Amid the devastation and lost lives, there was one story of heroism: Police Officer Bryan Jared reached into the broken cockpit and burned his arms as he pulled out James Polehinke, the plane’s first officer. Polehinke, the only survivor, was listed in critical condition at University of Kentucky Hospital.
A light rain was falling Sunday when the plane taxied away from the main runway, which had been repaved last week. The Atlanta-bound plane plowed through a perimeter fence and crashed in a field less than a mile from the shorter runway.
It’s rare for a plane to get on the wrong runway, but “sometimes with the intersecting runways, pilots go down the wrong one,” said Saint Louis University aerospace professor emeritus Paul Czysz.
There was one air controller on duty, which is standard for that airport at that hour, an aviation source said. The controller had worked all night and was at the end of the shift.
A passenger boarding a flight to Atlanta on Monday morning from the Lexington airport expressed some concerns.
“Obviously there is some anxiety when something like this happens, but it is not something that would stop me from going,” said Mark Carroll, a computer consultant from Lexington. “Things happen when you get older, it happens to everyone. You keep doing what you’re doing.”
The crash marks the end of what has been called the “safest period in aviation history” in the United States. It was the worst crash since an American Airlines jetliner went down in New York in November 2001, killing 265 people. An Air Midwest crash in North Carolina in January 2003 killed 21 people.
Intact but in flames
Aerial images of the latest crash site in the rolling hills of Kentucky’s horse country showed trees damaged at the end of the short runway and the nose of the plane almost parallel to the small strip.
When rescuers reached it, the plane was largely intact but in flames. “They were taking off, so I’m sure they had a lot of fuel on board,” Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. “Most of the injuries are going to be due to fire-related deaths.”
Those killed included a newlywed couple starting their honeymoon, a director of Habitat for Humanity International, and a Florida man who had caught an early flight home to be with his children.
Most of the passengers aboard the flight had planned to connect to other flights in Atlanta and did not have family waiting for them, said the Rev. Harold Boyce, a volunteer chaplain at the airport.
The crew members who died were Capt. Jeffrey Clay, who was hired in 1999, and flight attendant Kelly Heyer, hired in 2004. Polehinke has been with Comair since 2002.
The plane had undergone routine maintenance as recently as Saturday and had 14,500 flight hours, “consistent with aircraft of that age,” Bornhorst said.
Jon Hooker, a former minor-league baseball player, and Scarlett Parsley had wed the night before the crash in a fairy-tale ceremony complete with a horse-drawn carriage and 300 friends.
“It’s so tragic because he was so happy last night,” said Keith Madison, who coached Hooker’s baseball team at the University of Kentucky and attended the wedding. “It’s just an incredible turn of events. It’s really painful.”
Pat Smith, a member of Habitat for Humanity International’s Board of Directors, died on his way to Gulfport, Miss., to work on rebuilding houses, Habitat spokesman Duane Bates said.
Another passenger, Charles Lykins of Naples, Fla., caught an early flight Sunday so he could get home to his two young children after visiting friends and family in the Lexington area, said friend Paul Richardson.
Comair is a feeder carrier for Delta Air Lines. Both are restructuring in bankruptcy.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.